Building A Collaborative Network For Profit

By integrating content management and distribution across a group's stations, significant workflow and financial gains can be achieved. But to make the most of this process, the distribution network needs to be bi-directional and able to suppport live video and file based content
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As competitive pressures grow in the television broadcast industry, station groups will look for more ways to build revenue streams by delivering new services and to increase enterprise-level productivity by efficiently delivering content across their affiliates.

Finding new revenue has become critical as the industry's traditional ad-supported model declines on account of increased competition for viewers' attention and the introduction of new technologies such as the PVR. Recent research from In-Stat/MDR shows that 68% of PVR users use the device to skip ads and over 75% of them indicate that they skip over 50% of the ads, for example.

On a more positive note, station groups have new opportunities to provide their regionalized content to national multi-channel service providers such as Qualcomm, Crown Castle and Sprint, all of whom have announced plans to support rich media to mobile devices.

In response, station group owners have begun investigating ways to re-purpose their content--primarily news and sports--for distribution to new outlets and devices such as handhelds. These investigations naturally lead to questions about network infrastructure: that is, how best to flexibly and efficiently support video transport?

Step-level increases in productivity, along with achieving greater flexibility in provisioning new services, are possible by taking a more holistic view of infrastructure at the group level: in particular, by linking the processes by which content is ingested, tagged and managed with the processes by which content is distributed across the affiliates.

Actually implementing an integrated approach to content management and distribution, however, is a relatively new endeavor for most station groups. Yet, the significant gains that an integrated approach can offer can be compelling and certainly worth exploration.

The key to developing a strategy for implementing an integrated approach to managing and distributing content is to start with a top-down analysis of the enterprise (i.e., the group as a whole) and the associated workflows both within and across the affiliates. Starting the analysis at this level is needed in order to meet certain objectives:

The ability to ingest digitized content once for use by all the group's affiliates. As a basic example, if one station in a group of 20 is able to ingest interstitial material once and is able to distribute it to the other 19 affiliates on the network without their having to re-ingest it, productivity increases dramatically. The integrated approach enables groups to efficiently capture, manage and distribute content to the appropriate locations quickly and reliably.

The ability to lower the learning curve within the organization, as the group's staff does not have to learn different server architectures as they support multiple affiliates.

The ability to more easily add intelligence to media in order to more readily repurpose content either for new outlets or new devices.

Intelligent Media

Having the means to make media intelligent entails being able to easily add relevant metadata to the content which can then be readily understood by everyone involved in the content creation and distribution process. Adding intelligence is important because it helps reduce unnecessary steps in the production and distribution process.

By contrast, a piece of videotape has no intelligence. Someone must review the media to understand the subject matter. Taking this a step further, syndicated or network programming in digitized form has very little intelligence. Station staff, looking at the content as depicted in a rundown list, can learn little about the subject matter, other than the title of the show or commercial.

In a news environment, for example, being able to add appropriate metadata at the point where content is ingested is key because, if the person closest to the story (the producer) tags the material, the quality of the indexing greatly improves.

Cases in Point

Terrestrial stations mainly perform emissions broadcast in the content delivery chain, as opposed to feeding content into a network for collaborative sharing. The additional level of flexibility they get from building a networked architecture from the top down is that they can easily create customized programming that they can deliver to a cable headend via fiber link while also broadcasting a separate signal with different programming distributed over the air.

For example, one station group with whom we work with has a very strong news presence in the southeastern part of the US. Building an integrated network that links its stations' various news organizations has led to their being able to roll out a series of locally targeted cable TV news channels--one for Alabama, one for New Orleans, etc.--by leveraging the same content that had been developed for single market consumption. Affiliates can now easily search, retrieve and manipulate their vast media assets and have begun to generate new revenue by repurposing their assets.

Another studio location distributes the same SD and HD programming to multiple markets and requires unique branding for each market. They also require off-air confidence monitoring from each site. The same flexible, integrated approach makes these live and backhaul feeds possible.

In general, news and sports are two production environments where a group's assets are touched by many people on a continual basis. The need for an integrated approach is essential because it creates the ability to reuse those assets quickly, easily and effectively. When you build a bi-directional network, it allows you to leverage resources and talent across the entire company, no matter where you are located. Production benefits and resources are used to their fullest, providing a fast return on your investment.

Developing an Integrated Approach to Content Management and Delivery

Implementing an integrated approach does not have to "break the bank." In terms of content distribution, leasing ATM lines remains a price-competitive option in many parts of the country. Further, cable system operators have begun offering both city- and state-wide service for delivering data, enabling station groups to link their affiliates economically.

In addition, with the emergence of software-enabled hardware based on open platforms, many of the previous barriers to entry have been reduced or eliminated completely. These applications can support hybrid networks (e.g., ATM or IP) and can bridge between multiple means of transport. This level of flexibility is far different from several years ago, when groups had to build the entire network from the ground up and base it on a single protocol. Today, there are technologies and services that help smooth the process and allow you to build in universal compatibility.

The integrated approach accommodates not only current technologies and workflows, but also whatever new format might come down the road. MPEG-4 AVC and Windows Media 9 are two examples of emerging compression technologies that have to be considered if you build a network. These technologies help conserve bandwidth, which is critical to any network operation seeking to deliver HD content and other rich media. The network also has to deliver both file-based content and live video feeds to be successful.

An integrated approach also enables the intelligent management of the edges of the network to meet the dynamic needs of that particular environment. News organizations, which achieve ratings by getting the story to air first, are a great example. If the group has interconnected the affiliates in a network core and fast-breaking news breaks, the group can provide updates to all affiliates in the region before the competition.

A collaborative workflow, coupled with a keen sense of how to maximize return on assets in the form of content reuse, comprise the recipe for success for station groups in the world of digitized media and multi-channel service providers. An integrated approach to content management and distribution is the best path to get there.

The Bottom Line:
By integrating content management and distribution across a group's stations, significant workflow and financial gains can be achieved. But to make the most of this process, the distribution network needs to be bi-directional and able to support live video and file-based content in order to handle content such as breaking news and interstitial distribution respectively.

Once broadcasters get connected, the possibilities are endless.

With the emergence of software-enabled hardware based on open platforms, many of the previous barriers to entry have been reduced or eliminated completely.


John Delay is the director of strategic management for the division's Networking & Government Solutions, Broadcast Communications Division, Harris Corporation.
He can be reached at john.delay@harris.com.